Columns > Published on November 28th, 2011

How to Handle the Bad Review

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Publishing your first novel means a few things: you've officially arrived on the literary scene, your work now yields monetary compensation. It also means you're at the mercy of the public and their scrutiny, and some people just can't handle it.  Here at LitReactor we have many aspiring authors, and in our day-to-day operations we're mostly trying to get them to a point of publication via our writers' workshop and intensives.  In this column, though, we're going to discuss what happens afterwards: the review. And there are going to be some bad ones.  We can guarantee it.  

So how to you handle this?  Well, there's quite a few ways. 

The “Inevitable” Method: This was bound to happen.  Inescapable.  Since there is literally no book in the history of books that is universally liked, a bad review isn’t simply plausible—it’s a certainty.  A death and taxes scenario.  Accept it, drink a soda, and move on.

The “You’re Not My Audience” Method: Your novel, which is some kind of cross-between Beat the Reaper and Dermaphoria, has just received a fat one-star review on Goodreads, and naturally, you’re stalking this person’s booklist to gauge their literary tastes, discovering that—seriously?!—they've read a stockpile of crappy vampire fiction and tween supernatural romance shit, touting it as “the best stuff they've read all year.”  Did this person even read the synopsis of your book before they bought it?  What an idiot! 

The “I’ve Already Got Your Money” Method: The review says, “I can’t believe I wasted my money on this drivel!!  And on a hardcover, no less!!  How the hell do I get my money back?”  Sorry Charlie, that money already went to a Whopper with cheese.  No refunds.

The “Even Stevens” Method: “Hey mom, it’s me.  I’m just calling because some dick named IceKat77 (stoopid name) just posted a reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally mean review of that book I wrote, which you love, and well…I was wondering, do have an Amazon account?  I think you said you did once, but I forget.  Anyway…why don’t you write up something nice for me when you get home from work to even things out, ‘kay?  Love ya!  Bye!”

The “Misunderstood” Method: You’re an artist, and that means a few things: you don’t dress like anyone else, you don’t listen to “popular” music, and you certainly don’t write mainstream literature. So when someone says that “this book had no real direction and seemed really disjointed,” what that actually means is, “I’m not smart enough to comprehend this book so I’m going to make it look like the author’s fault.”  Sorry, but don’t blame the art when it’s the reader that has the mental shortcoming.

The “Anti-Favorite” Method: So you get a dirty little one-star review from some random, start cruising through their Goodreads shelf, and WTF!  They gave Bukowski one star?!  But Bukowski is your favorite writer of all-time!  An influence—nay, an inspiration of how to write and how to be an author.  This guy is your literary God.  How the hell do you one-star Bukowski and not deserve to be caned?  Sorry bud, if you’re hatin’ on a genius like that, there’s not much that can be done for you.

The “Jacqueline Howett” Method: “Fuck you!”

The “Underqualified” Method: What?  Some coffee slave wrote a big long diatribe about how bad you are?  Obviously, this person moonlights for Kirkus, right?  Starbucks is just a side gig.  #sarcasm

The “Nemesis” Method: “Ugh!  Really!?  You mean to tell me that it wasn’t enough to be a complete prick to me (everyone, actually) on the forum, and it wasn’t enough to spam my email and start a bunch of shit on Facebook…NOW you’re attacking my work, too??  Oh, and I just love the part where you say, ‘I really wanted to like this book, but ultimately, I just couldn’t stand it.  It was like an abortion in 12-point font.’  Oooooooooooooh, you’re just sooooooooo clever.  Sooooooooooo smart.  You know what?  It’s fine.  I still have the pics you posted in the nudie thread.  Keep it up and see what happens.”  

The “Challenge” Method: “Nice review.  It says on your profile here that you’re a writer also, so I guess we’ll just see how great your stuff is when it comes out, right?  I'll make sure to pre-order so you can show me how it's done.”

The “Out-of-Sight/Out-of-Mind” Method: **clicks red X on browser window**  **walks away from computer**  **gets blackout drunk**

The “You’re Supposed to Have My Back” Method:

Friend: Hello.
You: Hey, it’s Todd.
Friend: Hey, what’s up, man?
You: Well…you gave Teapots for Tyranny two stars.  That’s what’s up.  Did your hand slip or something?  Your hand slipped, right?
Friend: (pause)
You: Cos I know you’d never intentionally douche me like that.

The “It’s Supposed to Do That” Method: This reviewer is saying how the chapter three sex crime scene made them sick, and that the main protagonist’s plotline was “a little confusing,” and that there was an overuse of expletives, and that the descriptions were overdone to the point of it being unnecessary and annoying, and that maybe you should check your facts on the Bermuda Triangle because chapters nine and fifteen misinform the reader.

Um, hello?  It’s supposed to do all that.  Maybe read it again and pay attention this time.

The Reality: It sucks getting a bad review.  It really does.  The thing you have to realize though is that it’s part of the job, and the longer you keep doing this, the more you’re going to get.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a bestseller or a Pulitzer winner—it’s going to happen, and as an author, you could justify this any number of ways that range from ridiculous to reasonable.  Yes, sometimes the reviewer is out to get you, and yes, sometimes it is obvious that your book doesn’t jive with the litany of others on a person’s list.  You could be petty about it, asserting the aspiring author who slammed you is jealous of the publication they lack, provoking them to publish something themselves before they denounce your work.  Or you could seek the refuge of ignorance by never looking at them.  The author’s coping mechanism is a myriad of internal justifications and methods.

However, consider this: when you sit down to begin work on a novel, are you ever thinking about the wonderful reviews you’re hoping to procure?  Do you yearn for the affirmation of the faceless masses?

See, the thing I’ve noticed about aspiring authors is that the ones that get published have usually done it for years—many years, actually, and they’ve done it with no paycheck, no encouragement, and no guarantees.  They do it because they truly love it.  And even after a slew of bad reviews they keep doing it.  Accepting this and being able to handle it is part of the game, the craft.  It is the same inconvenience as writer’s block, a computer problem, or a rejected short story.  Common, inevitable, but you find a way to deal with it and keep going.  Maybe you even learn a thing or two from it.

It really is true what they say though: “There’s something out there for everyone.”

My all-time favorite books have been slammed.  My least favorite have been celebrated.  Just keep writing, because even in the face of harsh criticism, there will always be people that want to read exactly what you’re doing.  Embrace that, and don’t dwell on the things you can’t change.

Get Beat the Reaper at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Brandon Tietz is the author of Out of Touch and Good Sex, Great Prayers. His short stories have been widely published, appearing in Warmed and Bound, Amsterdamned If You Do, Spark (vol. II), and Burnt Tongues, the Chuck Palahniuk anthology. Visit him at www.brandontietz.com

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